Black Earth City
Review by Kate McCabe
Most travel writing sets out to make you wish you were there. But this book makes you glad Charlotte Hobson was there - in Voronezh, far out on the Ukrainian border, in the year that straddled the moment when the Soviet Union was broken up.
You just know that you would never have been able to harvest such a rich crop of characters, situations, personal and political drama, tragedy, social commentary and joyous humour as she has done.
Charlotte chose Voronezh over Moscow for her year of Russian study, much to everyone's astonishment including the people she met there, and she records their Chekhovian contempt for the provinces and yearning for Moscow.
Other favourite Russian literary themes she brilliantly updates are powerful women, the steam bath, the dacha, the shared flat, military service, opera, drinking vodka with snacks and, of course, love. She lived passionately, somewhat recklessly and was totally absorbed in that dramatic period of change. The book's subtitle is spot on: "A year in the heart of Russia".
Chekhov is not the only writer she gives a 1990s twist. She brings Bulgakov's satanic magician (from the Master & Margerita) back to orchestrate the inflationary crisis that in 1991 broke the back of the currency: "A man in a suit conjured up all the kopecks in the country and pfff! made them disappear. A one rouble note wrapped in a handkerchief became ten roubles, then twenty-five, then a hundred, then five hundred, and finally - drum roll - one thousand roubles! As a finale, an assistant wheeled a casket on stage that contained savings accounts, hundreds of thousands of them. The audience trembled as, with a silver sword, he sliced them in half! And in quarters! And at last each little nest egg hatched into a rook and flew away. The show ran and ran: they called it hyperinflation."
And after the currency disappears, she poignantly describes the moment when the country disappeared and lots of new ones took its place:
"….we turned on the TV at midnight and watched the huge red hammer-and-sickle flag on the Kremlin being lowered against the dark sky. There was a moment's pause, and then the Russian tricolour was slowly raised in its place. It should have been a great moment, the lowering of the tyrants' sign - and yet the red flag with its hammer and sickle looked so brave and bold in comparison with these dreary red, white and blue stripes. We cheered, and then a pang of nostalgia silenced everyone. The imagery of their childhood was being laid aside and the socialist ideals that had been taught along with it were now obsolete. For children of the Brezhnev years, the real and the ideal were plainly delineated; no one felt any sadness at the end of Party hegemony. The ideas, though, were different. It was as though the government had suddenly announced that love did not conquer all."
Charlotte Hobson's contemporaries are the first post-Soviet generation, and this book gives an amazing insight into their fading hopes for the future, their growing cynicism, despair and dreams of escape.
She describes the death of Petya, a young man ground down by the impossibility of life: "How is a man to live? In the old style, this was our subject as we sat in the yard under the gaze of his black eyes. And as the post-Soviet world grew increasingly grotesque, Petya decided that the only sincere way of life was in the mind. He became a zealot…." A zealot of oblivion, until alcohol and drugs put him to sleep for good.
Whatever you do, don't miss out on this great book - I'm already looking eagerly for her next.
Black Earth City Charlotte Hobson published by Granta, price £7.99